(ATLANTA) -- Americans who have received the full COVID-19 vaccine can gather with vaccinated grandparents or friends without wearing masks or keeping their distance, according to new CDC guidance announced Monday, and those grandparents can visit with and hug family members that aren't vaccinated as long as they don't have underlying medical conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19.

But getting the vaccine does not mean you should travel or gather in large groups, according to the CDC, which says vaccinated individuals should still stick to guidance.

The CDC says individuals who are fully vaccinated -- meaning two weeks after they have received the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine -- can safely gather around friends or family who are also vaccinated indoors without masks or social distancing, as well as visit with friends or family from a single household who aren't vaccinated but have a low risk of severe disease from COVID-19.

"If you and a friend or you and a family member are both vaccinated, you can have dinner together," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, without wearing masks and without distancing. "You can visit your grandparents, if you have been vaccinated and they have been too," she said in a White House briefing.

In a group where some individuals are vaccinated and some aren't, Walensky said the recommendations are more complicated. CDC says it is low risk for vaccinated individuals to gather with unvaccinated individuals indoors without masks and social distancing, as long as the people who aren't vaccinated are at low risk of severe disease and no one in their household as at high risk.

"Here's an example: If grandparents have been vaccinated, they can visit their daughter and her family, even if they have not been vaccinated, so long as the daughter and her family are not at risk for severe disease," she said.

The new guidance also says that vaccinated individuals don't need to quarantine or get tested if they come in contact with someone positive for COVID-19 and don't have any symptoms.

But in public, even people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine should continue to wear masks and maintain distance when in public, visiting with people at severe risk for COVID-19 disease who have not been vaccinated, or when socializing with groups of unvaccinated people from multiple households, even if they are at low risk of disease.

The CDC says people who have been vaccinated should still avoid gathering in larger groups and should get tested if they show any symptoms of COVID-19.

"We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love," Walensky, said in an earlier news release.

"There are some activities that fully vaccinated people can begin to resume now in the privacy of their own homes. Everyone -- even those who are vaccinated -- should continue with all mitigation strategies when in public settings. As the science evolves and more people get vaccinated, we will continue to provide more guidance to help fully vaccinated people safely resume more activities," she said.

When asked why CDC is still recommending people avoid travel Walensky said the data shows a connection between increased travel and a surge in new COVID cases.

"In terms of travel, here's what we know: every time that there's a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country. We know that many of our variants have emerged from international places, and we know that the travel corridor is a place where people are mixing a lot," she said.

"We are really trying to restrain travel at this current period of time, and we're hopeful that our next set of guidance will have more science around what vaccinated people can do, perhaps travel being among them."

Federal officials working on the pandemic response have said they want to provide optimism to people frustrated with what's now been a year of restrictions, staying at home, and not being able to see friends or family.

But, at the same time, the number of COVID-19 cases is high and they want people to remain cautious until fewer new COVID-19 cases are reported and more Americans are vaccinated.

"We believe these new recommendations are an important first step to our -- in our efforts to resume everyday activities in our communities. However, we remain in the midst of a serious pandemic and, still, over 90% of our population is not fully vaccinated, but we are working hard to get there," Walensky said.

"Therefore, everyone whether vaccinated or not, should continue to avoid medium and large size gatherings, as well as non-essential travel, and when in public spaces, should continue to wear a well-fitted mask, physically distance, and follow other public health measures to protect themselves and others."

Vaccinations are ramping up significantly in the U.S. as the supply of the three authorized vaccines increase. 58.8 million Americans have received at least one dose and 12% are considered fully vaccinated, meaning they've received both required doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

franckreporter/iStockBy ERIN SCHUMAKER, ABC News

(CHICAGO) -- Chicago's United Center mass vaccination site limited appointments to Chicago residents Sunday after most of the initial slots went to people who don't live in the city.

"So far, more than 40,000 residents 65 have secured appointments at the United Center. Less than 40% of these appointments were actually made by Chicagoans," Mayor Lori Lightfoot wrote on Twitter Sunday.

"Equity has always been the guiding light for our vaccine rollout," Lightfoot added.

To that end, appointments are now restricted to Chicagoans who are 65 years or older, have qualifying jobs or who have underlying health conditions that make them susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19, according to the mayor.

So far, more than 40,000 residents 65 have secured appointments at the United Center, however, less than 40% of these appointments were actually made by Chicagoans.

— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) March 7, 2021

The United Center is one of 18 community vaccination centers that are part of a federal plan to bring the vaccine to hard-hit, high-risk communities.

"Vaccines for these centers are provided to the states above and beyond the regular allocations," according to FEMA.

To determine locations for those centers, the Federal Emergency Management System (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) worked with state and local partners. They used the CDC's social vulnerability index, which uses census data to identify communities that need support before, during and after disasters.

When it reaches full capacity, the United Center site will be capable of administering 6,000 vaccines per day.

In Illinois, 8.8% of the population has received two doses of the vaccine, compared to 9.2% of the population nationwide, according to the CDC.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


(NEW YORK) -- It’s the million dollar question everyone is asking: When will life return to normal? And will school be open this fall?

The answers are all over the map -- from Texas and Mississippi governors declaring their states already open and lifting mask mandates, to health experts ominously warning the virus will always linger.

The reality, though, depends much on how you define "normal." And, if enough Americans step up for a shot this summer, it might not be as depressing as you think.

Experts say fall could become the season of a "new normal" in which the world slowly reopens and people will reconnect but with masks, routine testing and possibly even vaccine cards to allow them enter movie theaters or restaurants.

"It'll be so gradual, we probably won't even notice it," said Howard Markel, a historian of medicine at the University of Michigan and a pediatrician. "It's not a light switch or like V-Day -- like, it's over, you know, we won! It's not that way."

So what could derail it all? Infectious disease experts agree at least 70-85% of the country needs to become immune to starve the virus. Markel said he favors 90% with a virus this stealthy.

"It all depends on how many people roll up their sleeve and get the immunization, you see," Markel told ABC News. "So that's my fear, that's what keeps me up at night."

Here’s what health experts say could happen this year:

Spring will be a time of uncertainty, and possibly more deaths

The country is at a standstill with the virus. Even with the national seven-day average down some 74% in a matter of weeks, the U.S. is still averaging some 64,000 new cases per day. That average is on par with last fall just before cases exploded in the holiday season.

That stalled progress means the country is about to head into the season of spring break trips, graduation parties, family vacations and neighborhood gatherings with already high viral transmission, all the while a new, more transmissible variant originating from Britain is expected to become the most dominant strain of the virus by mid-March.

Health experts warn with states like Texas and Mississippi reopening now and lifting mask mandates, there could be one last heartbreaking rise in new cases -- followed weeks later by hospitalizations and deaths -- just as the nation is on the cusp of mass vaccinations.

"I know the idea of relaxing mask-wearing and getting back to everyday activities is appealing. But we're not there yet," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We have seen this movie before. When prevention measures like mask mandates are rolled back, cases go up."

Fingers crossed, summer becomes the season of mass vaccinations

If production can keep up, the U.S. expects to head into June with enough vaccine doses for 300 million Americans. The vaccines will still be limited to adults, with some supply available for teens 16-plus.

"I think that’s a huge undertaking," said Simone Wildes, an infectious diseases physician at South Shore Health in Massachusetts and an ABC News medical contributor, of the mass vaccination rollout.

"But if we can get it done June, July … we might be able to have a decent summer. But it really depends on how things unfold in the next few months," she said.

Markel too predicted that by early July, almost all "early accepters" of the vaccine will have gotten a shot. At that point, much of the nation might be able to expand their "pod" -- slowly.

Markel said he still wouldn't recommend putting down an early deposit on a nonrefundable beach house with extended family this summer.

Wildes agreed.

"Be flexible that if you know people are not vaccinated, if there is an increase in the number of cases, in particular with the variants, that we can cancel those plans," Wildes said. "There's nothing wrong with making tentative plans, but I think we just have to be mindful of where things are at that particular point."

Depending upon how many Americans become vaccinated, fall could become the 'new normal'

Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday that he now thinks by "fall, mid fall, early winter" that everyone might head back to work, kids will be in school and indoor dining might be humming once again.

His prediction follows a White House announcement that one vaccine maker, Johnson & Johnson, would be able to accelerate its supply. But it would still take the summer months to deploy the vaccines.

"By the time we get to fall with the implementation of the vaccine program, you're going to see something noticeably in the direction of going back to normality and very likely will get there by the end of the year,” said Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he prefers to put "normal" in quotes now because life would likely look very different. Online business meetings, for example, might become more commonplace than packed conference rooms, if possible.

"Masks ought to be one of the last things that goes," Schaffner said. "They're a bother, they're dorky, but they're so effective and so easy and so cheap. They wouldn't be the first things I take off; they would be the last."

But if enough people are vaccinated, he agreed that schools and colleges should be able to open with low risk this fall and the U.S. could see a brighter Thanksgiving.

"My anticipation is that we will be into this ‘new normal’ by the end of summer and into the fall, and we can all -- I hope -- give thanks at Thanksgiving, in a more conventional fashion, sitting around the table with our family, friends, relatives, with masks off and give thanks and be joyful that we have come through this awful pandemic and survived," Schaffner said.

Still, every expert interviewed by ABC News described a kind of cautionary "wait-and-see” approach. Vaccine hesitancy among some Americans remains a concern. And if viral transmission in other countries remains high, the virus could mutate in ways that chip away at the efficacy of the vaccines -- potentially putting even vaccinated individuals at risk.

"We might get back to some of the things we're accustomed to but to say we're going to get back to normal -- it's not going to be the same," Wildes said.

"I think it's even going to be hard for me to hug people," she later added.

When it's all over, however many months or years from now, Markel, who has spent 30 years studying pandemics, is sure of one thing: "We'll forget all about it."

"We'll go on our merry way," he said. "I’m telling you, I’ve studied a lot of pandemics. That's the end. It's like amnesia. And that's what I worry about."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


(NEW YORK) -- Jorge Figueroa was willing to drive eight hours round trip.

He wasn't going on vacation or to visit a relative.

Instead, he was planning to get a life-saving shot to protect him from COVID-19 -- a shot that many Americans can now conveniently access at their neighborhood pharmacy.

The 54-year-old father of four has been eager to get vaccinated because he has high blood pressure, which could increase his risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. But Figueroa lives in Presidio, Texas, a city of about 4,000 people on the U.S.-Mexico border where there's no hospital, no full-time doctor and no pharmacy.

It's an issue that millions of Americans also face.

After scouring social media for pop-up vaccine events and putting his name on waiting lists at local clinics, he eyed a vaccine hub in Odessa, some four hours away. But without a guaranteed appointment, an eight-hour drive and the possibility that he'd wait in line for hours, it was too big of a commitment for a risky trip from which he could come back empty handed.

On Saturday, his luck turned. After weeks of desperate searching, multiple follow-up calls with providers, and a last-minute scramble for an open spot, Figueroa got an appointment and his first shot at a clinic in Presidio that day.

With coronavirus deaths topping the grim 500,000 milestone in recent days and the case count inching towards the 30 million mark, many Americans are eagerly hoping the vaccines can bring some normalcy back to their lives.

Since vaccination began in mid-December, nearly 110 million doses have been delivered to various providers across the nation -- starting with big hospitals and local health centers and now expanding into mass vaccine hubs and big and small pharmacies.

Nearly 83 million of the doses have been put into people's arms so far.

But many health experts and community leaders worry about equity in access when the vaccination program expands to the wider public later this year because of disparities in the existing health care infrastructure and location of drugstores in underserved neighborhoods.

Even though 90% of Americans live within 3 miles of chain pharmacies, there are many others who live in so-called food and health care deserts, without a single grocery store or pharmacy in close range, said Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College and a member of Biden's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.

According to ABC News' analysis of pharmacy locations across the country, there are 150 counties where there is no pharmacy, and nearly 4.8 million people live in a county where there's only one pharmacy for every 10,000 residents or more.

Based on Census data, there are far fewer pharmacies per person -- especially chain pharmacies -- in rural parts of the country compared to in urban areas, especially in Southern and Plains states.

The drugstore disparity is particularly significant in majority-nonwhite rural neighborhoods, where there is on average one pharmacy per 9,888 people, compared to one pharmacy per 8,045 people in whiter rural neighborhoods.

The racial gap exists throughout the country, including in urban areas, where there are more pharmacies in whiter and wealthier neighborhoods per person than in poorer, predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods.

This means that residents in rural communities could have fewer options to get shots as the country moves to vaccinate the general public, health experts say, while pharmacies in underserved urban communities are set to be more crowded and inaccessible as they are expected to serve a far bigger population.

'Pharmacy deserts' are the new front in the race to vaccinate

When ABC News asked major chain pharmacies about their plans to help ensure underserved communities had equal access to the vaccine, Walgreens pointed to a pilot program with Uber rolling out in coming months, which will offer free or discounted rides for vaccinations in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and El Paso.

CVS's partnerships with Lyft and nonprofit organizations like the YMCA will similarly offer free or discounted rides.

President Joe Biden has described equity in vaccine distribution as the "No. 1" priority for his administration. He has emphasized that millions of doses have been directed to community health centers specifically to target vulnerable populations, and boasted the federal government's partnership with more than 6,700 pharmacies across the country, saying "almost everyone" lives within the reach of a pharmacy. He also committed to providing mobile units to go into neighborhoods that are hard to get to.

But partnering with pharmacies isn't enough to ensure equal access to vaccines, experts say.

"While pharmacies represent a critical resource in communities for preventative care services including vaccines, their distribution is based on economic factors rather than population representativeness," said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and ABC News contributor.

"In order to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, the rollout needs to ensure that geographic accessibility is not a barrier to access especially for those who would benefit the most," Brownstein said.

Rural areas 'need more help'

In Texas, more than two dozen of the state's 254 counties have no pharmacy at all, two of them -- Hudspeth and Culberson counties -- located in the vastly rural western border region between urban El Paso and Odessa, described by some as "miles and miles of nothing."

"It's almost desert-type climate and an interstate highway running through it, but not a lot of people and certainly not a lot of health care services," said John Henderson, the CEO and president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, who coordinates allocation of doses in rural vaccine hubs in the state.

Just south of Hudspeth and Culberson counties is the city of Presidio, where Figueroa lives. The closest pharmacy is in Marfa, an hour drive away, and to find pharmacies that are equipped to vaccinate people one would have to drive further up to Alpine, in Brewster County, which is about an hour and a half away.

Figueroa, who lost his health insurance when he got laid off as a construction worker in August as the coronavirus was raging in the South, has been making four-hour trips across the border to Mexico to find cheaper health care and medicine when he has needed to seek medical attention.

There are local clinics and health centers in Presidio, Marfa and Alpine that have been vaccinating community members, but supplies have been limited.

Without existing relationships with local clinics and pharmacies -- which help them be aware of his medical conditions -- Figueroa said the process of trying to get on various vaccine waitlists with local providers was "frustrating."

For weeks, his numerous efforts to find a slot at local clinics in Presidio and Marfa didn't materialize, and Figueroa said he was "this close" to driving to a vaccine hub in Odessa over the weekend, until on Friday he finally managed to get an appointment for the following day at a local community clinic in Presidio.

Alan Morgan, CEO of the Rural Health Association, worries about rural communities like Presidio, as states turn to mass vaccination sites to ramp up distribution.

"You have an easy solution of just setting up these massive vaccination sites in urban areas," Morgan said. "We're going to have a huge health disparity as we move forward."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is opening five new mass vaccination centers in New York and Texas, with military medical teams providing the jabs.

The efforts will be centered around major cities, with a site at the NRG Center in Houston expected to be able to vaccinate 6,000 people a day, and the Fair Park Cotton Bowl Stadium and the AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park in the Dallas area able to vaccinate 3,000 people a day.

But Presidio has none of that, and health care providers like Dr. Adrian Billings, 49, are doing their best to bridge the gap.

Billings is one of four doctors who makes the 90-mile drive from Alpine to Presidio to work at its community health center, a safety-net clinic for patients, most of whom are poor and primarily speak Spanish. Many are uninsured and don't have reliable cars. They walk to the clinic for care.

When vaccine doses arrive for Presidio from Alpine, often without more than a few hours notice, Billings said his team -- which services three different clinics in the region -- scrambles to call patients to schedule appointments.

Doses have to be kept cold for the hour and a half drive through the desert.

Billings said there's not enough staff to give vaccines and provide medical care simultaneously, so the clinic has to triage, and shuts down non-emergency medical services on days when they administer vaccines.

"I wish it was easier," Billings said.

He's still holding out hope that the National Guard takes over Presidio's vaccination effort, allowing the doctors to go back to treating patients. Then, they wouldn't have to choose between offering medical care and giving vaccines.

"We're doing the best we can, but we need more help," he said.

Linda Molinar, whose community clinics in Presidio, Marfa and Alpine have had to cut regular medical care services to vaccinate people, asked the question: "Who's taking care of the sick people?"

"Do I do vaccines, or do I see these people that are needing their insulin?" Molinar said. "I have people right now that are supposed to get allergy shots every other day, and we're the only clinic that does this. Where are they supposed to go?"

"COVID just made everything harder," Molinar added.

'Messy' and 'uneven'

Vaccine allocation in rural Texas has at times been "messy" and "uneven," Henderson of TORCH said.

At the beginning of January, 40% of rural hospitals still had not received a single dose for their front-line health care workers, he said, and finally, six weeks into vaccination, every rural hospital in Texas had received doses.

For Presidio and Marfa, Midland Memorial Hospital -- one of the closest vaccine hubs in the area -- has stepped up to share vaccine doses with those cities and to bring vaccines to the communities.

Doses are finally trickling down to smaller providers in rural towns.

In Marfa, the local health center has been receiving a weekly allocation of 500 doses since February. In Alpine, local drugstore Prescription Shop received 100 doses through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program just before a snowstorm hit the state last month.

Highland Drug, another local pharmacy in Alpine, was recently offered 1,100 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but had to decline and wait for fewer doses of the Moderna vaccine because the store didn't have the ultra-freeze capability required for the Pfizer vaccine.

The store also didn't have the capacity to vaccinate that many people before the doses would expire, the pharmacy's owner and pharmacist Jill Jahn told ABC News.

Jahn, whose store serves patients from about 100 miles in every direction, including from Presidio and Marfa, said once her pharmacy receives vaccines, it will be open on weekends to vaccinate people in the community. She said she even plans to bring vaccines to her patients' homes in case they can't get to her pharmacy.

Presidio County has so far fully vaccinated a much higher percentage of its residents over the age of 16 than Dallas County or Harris County, according to data released by the state.

But Bob Fast, the owner and pharmacist at Prescription Shop in Marfa, said that he's more "anxious" about vaccinating the general public in the coming weeks and months.

"When that happens, that's going to be a lot of people," Fast said. "I don't know whether there's going to be more of a challenge, but there's going to be some uncertainty in the supply."

Keith Mueller, the director of the Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis at the University of Iowa, who has studied distribution of pharmacy locations across the country, said pharmacy closures over the years, exacerbated by the pandemic in the past year, have contributed to the spread of vaccine deserts across the country.

From 2010 to 2016 the number of independent pharmacies was on the rise, but a recent report by the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association says that between 2016 and 2019, there was a net loss of 83 independent pharmacies across the country (roughly 0.3% of all independent pharmacies) and a net loss of 1,583 chain stores (roughly 4% of chain stores).

In addition to Texas, states like Nebraska and Montana, which also have clusters of counties without pharmacies, could be especially vulnerable, Mueller said.

In northwest Nebraska, there are eight adjoining sparsely-populated rural counties where COVID-19 infection rates average 6,400 per 100,000 residents and there are at least nine deaths as of March 1. But not a pharmacy is in sight for vaccine shots in these counties.

According to vaccine location data, there's one vaccine provider registered in each of these eight counties, but state-released data suggests that these are satellite sites that will get limited, redistributed doses from vaccine hubs that are equipped with ultra-cold freezers and dry ice suppliers.

This means that many of Grant County's 700 residents -- in one of those vaccine desert counties -- will be forced to make at least an hour's drive to the nearest drugstore taking COVID-19 vaccination appointments -- a Safeway Pharmacy in Ogallala, a town in neighboring Keith County which was a one-time mail stop on the legendary Pony Express.

Disparities in cities, too

While urban areas have more pharmacies than their rural counterparts, there are stark racial and wealth disparities in terms of access.

In places like Chicago and Detroit, a pharmacy desert doesn't mean that residents have to drive an hour to find the nearest drug store, rather, it means that there are fewer available. This means pharmacies are slammed with serving more people and residents face longer wait times and other challenges, like transportation barriers.

Similar access disparities were found in Detroit and Chicago, even when taking other vaccine sites, like local clinics and health centers, into consideration.

In Chicago, at least a third of the population -- or nearly 1 million people -- lives in a pharmacy desert, or an area with less than one pharmacy per 10,000 residents, according to Dima Mazen Qato, an associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy. Most of those pharmacy deserts are in Black and brown communities.

While there are 254 pharmacies on the city's wealthier, slightly less populated North Side, for example, the poorer South Side only has 141, according to pharmacy location data.

Juanita Love, 80, has lived in Auburn Gresham, a neighborhood on the South Side, for 50 years. There used to be a CVS pharmacy three blocks away, she said, which she could easily walk to.

When the local CVS shut, getting medication became a challenge for Love's older neighbors, for many of whom hopping on a public transportation to get to a pharmacy far away isn't always an easy option. "My neighbors don't have cars, a lot of them don't drive," Love said. "It's really difficult for them."

There's only one pharmacy for every 13,541 residents in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, where 95% of the residents is black and the median household income is $36,767.

In comparison, the Ukrainian Village, the Wicker Park and the East Village neighborhoods, where majority of the residents are non-Hispanic white, and the median household income is nearly three times that of Auburn Gresham's, there's one pharmacy per just 4,441 residents.

To fill their prescriptions, Love's neighbors have leaned on family members, called Ubers and gotten help from the neighborhood block club. But even with help, those barriers still exist, and with very few pharmacies in the area, they're facing many hurdles to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

As of last week, 3.2% of the residents in Love's ZIP code were fully vaccinated, and 8.2% got their first shot, according to city data. In the wealthier, whiter Ukrainian Village/Wicker Park area, 9.3%, were fully vaccinated, and 16.6% got their first shot.

Love has a car, so she drove 15 minutes to another pharmacy for her first dose earlier this month. It's different without a neighborhood drug store, she explained. Seniors felt unaided and upset when their CVS shut down.

"It was convenient to us all," Love said.

'Shoe leather' efforts to get people vaccinated

Dr. Ali Khan, the executive medical director at Oak Street Health in Chicago, said at a macro level, there's a "perverse logic" in how the early vaccine distribution effort has played out so far. He said much of the early resources have gone to major institutions concentrated in wealthier, whiter parts of the city, when underserved communities were the ones hit harder by the pandemic.

So Khan's facility has partnered with the city of Chicago to actively bring vaccines to underserved communities, relying not just on online registration to reach people but also through "shoe leather" efforts like knocking on doors and engaging with community organizations such as faith-based organizations or housing access organizations.

In Detroit, where data shows fewer pharmacies serve larger populations in predominantly black neighborhoods compared to in whiter neighborhoods, the city is taking a similar approach.

In addition to a mass vaccination site at a convention center downtown, the Detroit Health Department has partnered with two of the city's largest churches, Fellowship Chapel and Second Ebenezer, to hold weekly "Senior Saturday" events to vaccinate up to 500 Detroit residents 65 years old or older -- an effort to directly infuse vaccines into communities most impacted by the pandemic.

"There are trusted community voices, trusted community partners that can be very well utilized in helping to attack vaccine hesitancy and provide a foundation of trust for those in the community and greater accessibility also for community residents," said Bishop Edgard Vann of the Second Ebenezer Church.

"The key word is 'trust,' not 'vaccine,'" said Bishop Vann, who also sits on the executive board of the Henry Ford Health System, which works with the city and the church to organize the "Senior Saturday" events.

Pamela Wilson, 61, shared that spirit when she took her 83-year-old mother to get vaccinated at the Second Ebenezer Church last month. She said she had the option of taking her mother to a different vaccine site further down in the city, but chose the church site for "extra blessing."

But the Detroit resident-exclusive vaccination opportunity at local churches was not available to Geri Withers, a 77-year-old resident of the township of Canton, just outside of Detroit. Withers had called, texted and emailed numerous big-chain pharmacies close to her home, but she ended up making a 30-minute trip to get vaccinated at a Meijier store in Southgate.

Hildreth said it's time to identify and empower trusted community messengers to reach the public.

"There are organizations that have the capacity, that are trusted to get this done, but we've never felt empowered to do so," Hildreth said. "And I think that's one thing that needs to be done -- to recognize other assets and bring all the assets to bear on the problem. We haven't yet done that. We need to do that."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Ridofranz/iStockBy ERIN SCHUMAKER, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Appointments at a federally run vaccination hub at Chicago's United Center opened on Thursday, with the first shots there scheduled to be given next week. It will be the first site in Cook County to offer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against COVID-19.

The United Center is one of 18 community vaccination centers included in a White House plan to reach hard-hit, high-risk communities.

The Federal Emergency Management System and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worked with state and local partners to determine locations for those centers, using as a guide the CDC's social vulnerability index, which uses census data to identify communities that need support before, during and after disasters.

"Vaccines for these centers are provided to the states above and beyond the regular allocations," according to FEMA.

Collectively, those 18 sites will be able to administer 61,000 shots per day once they're operating at full capacity.

The first such sites -- two in California, three in Texas and two in New York -- launched in late February with the capacity to vaccinate 3,000 to 6,000 people per day, depending on the location.

On Wednesday, nine other sites, including the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Miami-Dade Community College and New York National Guard Armory, followed suit, each with the capacity to vaccinate 1,000 to 6,000 people daily.

In addition to the pilot program, there are sites nationwide supported by 2,225 federal personnel, including members of FEMA, the CDC, the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard, the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

As of Wednesday, FEMA had provided more than $4 billion in funding for vaccinations and established more than 450 community vaccination centers and 55 mobile vaccine centers around the country.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Myriam Borzee/iStockBy DR. TARUN JAIN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- The number of children and adolescents with COVID-19 in Mississippi may be more than 10 times the number of previously reported cases, according to a new study.

Pediatricians have previously suggested that because children are more likely to have COVID-19 without showing any symptoms, many infections in children are never diagnosed.

Looking back at residual blood samples from people younger than 18 collected from May to September 2020, researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in collaboration with the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, measured levels of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

They found that the percentage of samples positive for antibodies increased from 2.5% in May to 16.3% in September. Overall, their results suggested that an estimated 113,842 Mississippi children and adolescents had been infected by September 2020.

In contrast, only 8,993 cases were reported to the Mississippi Health Department by that time -- a figure that could be as much as 10 times less that the real number of children and adolescents infected in the state.

Of note, the samples are from children who needed bloodwork for other reasons and may not represent the actual population. Nevertheless, the authors and some experts note that the results from case-based surveillance likely underestimate the rate of infections.

Many children continue to test positive for COVID-19 and, despite limited statistics, more are believed to be positive than show in case rates, according to Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist with Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

"It helps push the concept that young people are still involved in transmission of this virus and need to be accounted for," he said of the Mississippi study.

While severe illnesses may be rare in children, infection and transmission to peers and adults remains possible.

This study was released as restrictions -- such as mask mandates and business closures -- have been relaxed in at least 11 states, and with many children returning to school.

The New York Times reported this week that based on its analysis of nationwide COVID-19 rates, only 4% of children live in counties where transmission is low enough for full-time, in-person learning without additional restrictions suggested by the CDC.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


(NEW YORK) -- The U.S. would never be the same after March 2020.

While the novel coronavirus had been in the country for at least a month, in March cases began to jump at alarming rates as did the hospitalizations and deaths. Former President Donald Trump and other federal leaders initially claimed that the virus would not be a major problem, but many changed their stance by the end of the month and the virus was declared a national emergency.

Still, relatively little was understood about the disease and politicians on both sides of the aisle as well as leading public health officials issued guidance, including about mask-wearing that is out of step with what we now know. In fact, masks were recommended and then required in some places, like New York, the next month.

One by one, states issued stay-at-home orders shutting down all non-essential businesses, travel and gatherings creating a ripple effect that crippled the American economy for months to come.

By March 31, there were 192,301 documented cases and the virus had killed 5,334, according to Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Here is a look back at the biggest moments of last March as the tragedy of the pandemic first gripped the U.S.:

Week 1: March 1-8

-New cases confirmed that week: 487; new deaths confirmed that week: 21.

-March 1: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the first COVID-19 case in the state -- a woman who had traveled from Iran. Former Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweets that people should stop buying masks to prevent a shortage for health workers, adding "They are not effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus."

-March 2: Trump asks vaccine researchers to "accelerate" what they're doing and suggests one could be developed "rapidly."

-March 3: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issues new guidance that allows anyone to be tested for the virus without restriction -- not just those who traveled to an area that had an outbreak. There were just 60 cases in the U.S. at this point, according to a CDC briefing at the time.

-March 6: Ten states confirm their first cases. Adams tells Fox News the risk to the "average American...remains low" and that wearing a mask "may actually increase their risk of getting coronavirus" because of people touching their faces (Adams later clarified the position saying they learned more about asymptomatic transmission and the CDC in early April advised wearing non-medical masks).

-March 8: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, says that "people should not be walking around with masks" and that "wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it's not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is."

Week 2: March 9-15

-New cases confirmed that week: 2,618; new deaths confirmed that week: 48.

-March 9: The spread of the virus and its effect on businesses results in the stock market plummeting 7.79%. An automatic circuit breaker safety mechanism is activated to stop stock prices from free falling.

-March 10: President Trump tells Americans the U.S. is doing a "great job" with the virus and "it will go away." The surgeon general strikes a more pessimistic tone, telling ABC News' Good Morning America the situation is "going to likely get worse before it gets better" and that most cases are coming from community spread, not travel. New York cancels its St. Patrick's Day parade for the first time since its inception in 1762.

-March 11: WHO characterizes the coronavirus outbreak as a "pandemic," marking the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus and Trump restricts travel from Europe for 30 days. The NBA suspends its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive before tipoff.

-March 12: Broadway theaters in New York City go dark. San Francisco shuts down schools. The NHL suspends its season, MLB suspends spring training and the NCAA suspends its college basketball tournaments. The stock market saw another plunge and ended the day with a 9.99% loss. Disney (the parent company of ABC News), announces park closures.

-March 13: President Trump declares a national emergency as the death toll increases, freeing up to $50 billion in funding and establishing private sector partnerships to increase testing capacity. Dr. Fauci suggests it could be "several weeks" before cases peak.

-March 15: The CDC warns against holding or attending gatherings larger than 50 people. Puerto Rico issues a stay-at-home order.

Week 3: March 16-22

-New cases confirmed that week: 64,258; new deaths confirmed that week: 491.

-March 16: New York City closes schools. The stock market begins the week with another devastating tumble and closes with a 12.93% drop. The College Board cancels May 2 SAT. President Trump urges people not to gather in groups of 10 or more and avoid eating and drinking in restaurants and bars among other new guidelines, suggesting that this "sacrifice" will help avoid putting the vulnerable in "harm's way."

-March 17: All 50 states report at least one coronavirus case. New York City and Los Angeles shut down movie theaters and Pfizer and BioNTech announce they will team up to develop a vaccine. Six counties in Northern California ordered to "shelter in place."

-March 18: Macy's and other major retailers temporarily close their stores.

-March 19: California Gov. Gavin Newsom becomes the first governor in the country to order a stay-at-home order for non-essential workers, saying the move was "necessary" and "open-ended."

-March 20: Cuomo issues his "New York State on Pause" order, closing all non-essential businesses. The order was effective March 22.

-March 22: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio calls New York City the epicenter of the crisis and suggests "it will get worse." At that point, the seven-day average for new daily cases was close to 3,000, the seven-day average for new daily hospitalizations was 771 and the seven-day average for new daily deaths was 52, according to the city's health department.

Week 4: March 23-31

-New cases confirmed that week: 146,165; new deaths confirmed that week: 4,555.

-March 24: Army hospital units are deployed to New York state to deal with declining hospital capacity. Army engineers start converting the Javits Center into a temporary field hospital able to house nearly 3,000 beds, making it one of the largest in the U.S.

-March 25: Congress strikes a deal and approves a $2 trillion stimulus deal that gives most adult Americans a $1,200 check. Trump suggests "large sections" of the country could get back to "normal" sooner than others.

-March 26: The U.S. surpasses China with the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, topping 82,000 cases.

-March 27: The U.S. surpasses 100,000 total cases.

-March 30: U.S. Navy ship arrives in New York City to help relieve pressure on local hospitals.

-March 31: Twenty-six states and territories have issued stay-at-home orders.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

hapabapa/iStockBy MARLENE LENTHANG, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Five states -- Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Montana and North Dakota -- have ended, or soon will end, statewide mask mandates, despite the looming threat of COVID-19 and highly transmissible variants.

They're joining 11 other states -- Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee -- that never required face coverings statewide.

Alabama will lift its mandate in about a month, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Thursday. She said that beginning on April 9, wearing masks will be "a matter of personal responsibility and not a government mandate."

Texas and Mississippi announced Tuesday they'd shortly be ending requirements for masks and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity, decisions President Joe Biden slammed as "Neanderthal thinking."

Ending requirements for face coverings defies Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that encourages everyone public to continue wearing masks in public and maintaining proper social distancing.

"Cases in the country are leveling off at rates just on the cusp of potential to resurge," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a Wednesday briefing on the reopenings. She added the COVID-19 variant that first emerged in the UK, known as B.1.1.7, "looms ready to hijack our successes to date."

She stressed it is "critically important" that "individuals wear a mask, socially distance and do the right thing to protect their own health."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that "Texas is OPEN 100%" and the mask mandate, in effect since July, would expire March 10. He cited lower COVID-19 hospitalizations and a virus positivity rate that has been declining for two months straight.

The Lone Star State has recorded more than 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 -- with nearly 5,000 new cases Wednesday -- and more than 43,500 fatalities since the start of the crisis, according to state data. The state is averaging 297 deaths a day, according to The Covid Tracking Project's seven-day average.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced the end of his state's mask mandate starting on March 3, citing plummeting hospitalization and case numbers and ramped up vaccine distribution.

Cases have fallen in the state since January and the percent positivity rate for the last month is 10.96%, according to Johns Hopkins University. Only 7.63% of the state's population has been vaccinated.

"Starting tomorrow, we are lifting all of our county mask mandates and businesses will be able to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules," Reeves said in a Facebook post. "Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!"

Iowa adopted a mask mandate in November, but in February Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted it saying, "We know what we need to do and it doesn't require a government mandate to do it."

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte allowed the state's mask rule to expire in February but said local authorities could enforce their own mandates.

North Dakota issued a mask mandate in November 2020 that expired in January. Officials didn't renew it due to a drop in cases and hospitalizations, while allowing for local safety protocols to be enacted.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Bill Oxford/iStockBy DR. MAIA OU, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- A year into the pandemic, COVID-19 still puzzles researchers, but the public release of a new database may help scientists solve some of the mysteries lingering around this devastating disease.

An international team of researchers from institutions including Boston Children's Hospital and the University of Oxford has partnered with Google to release, a platform that contains information about almost 10 million COVID-19 cases from over 100 countries.

The goal, researchers said, is to help scientists across the globe answer a wide range of questions, from measuring the impact of newly emerged virus variants on different age groups, including children, to understanding how likely a public response is to help curb spread in certain areas.

There are many databases tracking COVID information, such as the ones run by Johns Hopkins University and The COVID Tracking Project, but most of those track what's known as aggregate data, which includes case and death counts in particular regions.

"What's different about ours is its detailed line-list information," said Dr. John Brownstein, a researcher and a professor of pediatrics and biomedical informatics at Boston Children's Hospital. "It provides high-resolution data -- harder to get but super critical if we're going to do deep-dive epidemiological research."

This "line-list" data includes age range, gender, occupation, ethnicity, location, symptoms, travel history, preexisting conditions and outcome, whenever available.

"We have very local, individual data that together can help at a global scale," said Leslie Leland, a fellow who's working on the project. "There has never been a global line-list database for infectious disease. This helps provide better context that becomes important when trying to figure out transmission patterns or the effectiveness of policies."

The database may be particularly helpful for policymakers tasked with creating policies for lockdowns, mask wearing and social distancing.

"Data plays such a vital role in all that we're trying to do to curb this pandemic," Brownstein added.

The database could prove critical in understanding emerging COVID-19 variants because "we don't know if variants increase transmissibility or if the attack rate in different age groups is different," Brownstein continued. "Understanding that is super critical in making policy decisions."

The data on the platform is accessible to anybody with an e-mail address. Having an open database in particular makes it easier for researchers in low-resource areas to access data, said Leland, adding, "I feel it's important that the platform allows those areas with less access to funding and expertise to gain access to data and expertise they otherwise wouldn't."

The database initially grew out of an international network of volunteers who entered data into a Google spreadsheet, Brownstein explained. As the amount of data exploded, organizations like Boston Children's Hospital provided engineering support, and when the amount of data surpassed what could be managed in a Google spreadsheet, the team asked Google for both funding and engineering support, which was provided thorough a fellowship program.

"There are some silver linings to this pandemic -- there's global cooperation between scientists on a scale that we've never seen before," Brownstein said. "People have put their own personal career needs aside in response to the greater good."

The infrastructure that's been created will be helpful not only in battling COVID-19 but in accelerating responses to future pandemics.

"There was a real lack of infrastructure -- it just didn't exist," Leland said. "My hope is that when we look back, 10 years from now, will still be a key resource for not only tracking outbreaks but preventing diseases, and that people in very different countries can benefit from each other's data in an open and collaborative way."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Ovidiu Dugulan/iStockBy NASIR MALIM, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- As larger numbers of people recover from COVID-19, researchers are learning more about "brain fog" in those affected by the virus.

For months, doctors and researchers have been aware of a range of longer-term symptoms afflicting people after recovering from an active COVID-19 infection. One such symptom, generally referred to as "brain fog," can take the shape of confusion, difficulty thinking and concentrating, short-term memory loss, and in severe cases, has even been reported to cause delirium and psychosis.

While scientists still don't know for sure what causes brain fog, they're zeroing in on a few theories. Mainly, scientists increasingly believe brain fog happens when cells that are involved in response to an infection make their way to atypical places, such as the brain.

A key finding emerged when researchers autopsied brains of COVID victims, discovering certain cells that shouldn't have been there. These large cells, known as megakaryocytes, might be taking up precious space, leaving less room for blood to pass to the brain.

This phenomenon might be unique to COVID, according to David Nauen, MD, PH.D, a professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"To have megakaryocytes in the brain has never been seen before, I couldn't find any reference in my search this past summer with megakaryocytes noted in human brain capillaries. This is very new for COVID that they are doing this," Nauen told ABC News. "This could help us bring up a better picture of what's going on."

If these massive cells are indeed blocking blood flow to the brain, it would starve the brain of enough oxygen and nutrients to work at full capacity.

"The brain cortex is richly vascularized with capillaries, if some proportion of capillaries are blocked or occluded by these cells, it blocks some level of blood flow. An alteration in flow of blood in a system that is so precisely delivering oxygen based on time and need could be leading to impaired cognitive function, like a brain fog picture," said Nauen, who led the research into the topic, which was published in the Journal of American Medical Association Neurology.

In fact, the cells seen were not in small number, "the findings on autopsy suggest that the burden could be significant," Nauen said.

The next question Nauen said is about how these megakaryocytes are getting there and what sort of communication the cells are using in the process.

Other scientists have theories, which may add to Nauen's findings.

According to Adrienne A. Boire, MD, PhD, a neuro-oncologist and neurologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, people who experience brain fog may have inflammation in the brain evidenced by a protein called "cytokines" swirling around the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

These proteins are usually associated with the immune system, which leads to inflammation and can damage vital organs. Now, researchers like Boire say they're finding these proteins in cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF.

"We did find a large influx of cytokines in the CSF. Cytokines are small proteins that cells use to communicate with each other," Boire told ABC News.

Severe COVID infections are known to cause inflammation in the body. It's possible that this process causing inflammation in the brain can cause the brain to not function normally.

For now, these new findings lead to more questions.

For Boire, people who recover from COVID without any lingering problems may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of why some people develop "brain fog."

"The question of how this finding affects patients without severe disease is still an open question," Nauen said.

"These 'unaffected' patients are key to understanding why some people avoid “brain fog” and why others are disabled by them," Boire said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

MarsBars/iStockBy SASHA PEZENIK, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- With Johnson & Johnson vaccines on their way across the country, a longstanding dilemma for religious conservatives is being revived: much of the research for coronavirus inoculations relies on the use of material derived from human fetal tissue -- something they have spent years fighting against.

Many next-generation vaccines -- including those from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson -- use specialized cells originally derived from aborted fetal tissue. Though not ingredients in the shots themselves, they're used in testing or making vaccines.

While Pfizer and Moderna used these cells during preliminary laboratory testing months ago, Johnson & Johnson's vaccine uses the cells as part of its existing manufacturing process -- raising especial "moral concerns," conservative leaders told ABC News.

"If one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen," Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said in a joint statement Tuesday night. "Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna's vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson's."

Scientists agree abortion-derived "immortalized" cell lines have been vital in the most groundbreaking medical advances to date. The monoclonal antibody treatment taken by former President Donald Trump to treat COVID-19 was developed using cells derived from these cell lines through a research technique his administration sought to limit.

Even prior to the first vaccine authorization for Pfizer in December, religious leaders and scientists were grappling with this complex issue, describing in interviews with ABC News at the time the conundrum posed by ethics, amid the urgency for safe and effective tools to fight the pandemic.

The issue has grown more salient with Johnson & Johnson's authorization and imminent availability.

While Moderna and Pfizer's vaccines are made using raw genetic material, vaccines like Johnson & Johnson's use an innocuous virus as a vehicle to deliver that genetic material into the body.

To make those vaccines en masse, fetal cell lines provide a factory to produce these viral delivery mechanisms. The mRNA vaccines don't need that, since they're produced synthetically. As for doing without these cell lines altogether, scientists have studied potential alternatives to the "immortalized" cell lines for similar application, but argue others aren't as effective.

"We are proud to bring our COVID-19 vaccine to the world and to contribute to ending this pandemic," a Johnson & Johnson spokesperson told ABC News, adding their vaccine development has been held to the "highest bioethical standards and guidelines," and they look forward to meeting what's such a critical need worldwide for COVID-19 vaccine.

But conservative groups maintain keen awareness of the nuance between these vaccines, and how "tainted" they are by these cell lines. The Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the anti-abortion rights nonprofit Susan B. Anthony List, has made a point of charting each of the vaccine candidates out.

Even months before the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was granted authorization, leaders in conservative and Christian spheres told ABC News they expected some might opt to choose the candidate distinguished by its farthest proximity to such cell lines.

While waiting for the Food and Drug Administration's decision to authorize the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Friday, the Archdiocese of New Orleans put out a statement saying that while the Pfizer & Moderna vaccines can be deemed "morally acceptable" by their remote connection, Johnson & Johnson's is "morally compromised."

Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities with the USCCB, told ABC News in December the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines bear a "much closer and more problematic" connection to abortion than the mRNA vaccines currently authorized.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said all of the currently available vaccines are "morally compromised" to some degree.

"We don't have a perfect choice, and it's not a totally linear decision," Pacholczyk said. "But that may change with time, and new data about relative efficacy of one vaccine compared to another -- or if new variants emerge."

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine was tested with new variants of COVID-19, and has shown to be effective against them; Pfizer and Moderna were tested prior to the emergence of these variants.

The renewed debate comes as the second Catholic president in American history sits in the Oval Office, and as public health leaders confront vaccine hesitancy.

President Joe Biden celebrated Johnson & Johnson's emergency authorization Saturday, calling it "exciting news for all Americans."

In late December, the Vatican wrote "when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available ... it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process."

"The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent," the Vatican said in a statement.

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received the vaccine in January.

Controversy aside, scientists say that countless important medical discoveries have relied on fetal tissue, leading to significant work in research and treatment of diseases like AIDS and Zika.

Deepak Srivastava, president of the Gladstone Institutes and immediate past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, told ABC News that if these cell lines had never been made innovations would not have been possible.

"These next few months will be imperative to the race between vaccinations and variants, so the sooner people can take the vaccine, take it as soon as they can, the faster we can win," Srivastava said. "That's what's going to save lives."

The issue will only grow more complex as vaccine effectiveness and safety profiles continue to factor in further, especially with the potential for emerging variants.

"We recognize the pandemic is a changing terrain, and will require a number of judgments about these vaccines' characteristics and applicability," Pacholczyk said. "For the good judgment about protecting our health, that's just part of what we have to do."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

MarianVejcik/iStockBy ZOE MAGEE, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Four former surgeons general are joining a campaign calling for a National Vaccine Day to "focus our nation's attention on the importance of vaccination."

In a letter exclusively obtained by ABC News, the doctors call on President Joe Biden to consider enacting the one-time federal holiday, which they say could feature telethons, radio messages and social media posts about the COVID-19 vaccines as well as widely available "opportunities for vaccination."

"Americans have endured incredible hardship over the last year. Many of us know someone who has died or fallen gravely ill from COVID-19," Antonia Novello, M.D., Joycelyn Elders, M.D., David Satcher, M.D., PhD, and Richard Carmona, M.D wrote in the letter. "But the advent of safe and effective vaccines provides a light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccination has enabled humanity to triumph over terrible diseases like smallpox and measles. We now must launch a public health campaign to ensure that the same is true for COVID-19."

National Vaccine Day was conceived by the advocacy group 1Day Sooner, which approached Carmona, the 17th surgeon general, who served under President George W. Bush. Carmona, in turn, helped enlist his predecessors for support.

The surgeons general say such a holiday could both encourage the hesitant to get injections and also mark the "heroic" work of scientists and health care workers "who put themselves at great personal risk to protect our country and care for our loved ones."

To Keona Wynne, a PhD student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who is helping lead 1Day Sooner's National Vaccine Day project, "National Vaccine Day would give us a moment to pause and reflect."

It's an ambitious campaign, acknowledged Abie Rohrig, a spokesperson for 1Day Sooner, particularly as the last federal holiday to be enacted was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. But, Rohrig told ABC News, "If there were ever a year that a federal holiday to celebrate vaccination were possible, it's 2021. The positive impact of vaccines has never been so apparent."

The campaign has gathered numerous supporters including actor Kumail Nanjiani, who told ABC News he hopes the day would "normalize" vaccinations.

"I think it'll spread awareness about the various vaccines that have helped us eradicate disease in the past, and that vaccination isn't some scary new thing we're experimenting with. Vaccines have been a part of human life for hundreds of years and will continue to be," he said.

A poll from Kaiser Family Foundation released last week found at least 55% of Americans have received the COVID-19 vaccine or plan to get vaccinated as soon as possible, which marked an increase since January, but a notable percent of Americans still have concerns, with one in five saying they are reluctant.

"There is a lot of intentional vaccine misinformation being spread right now which has led to vaccine hesitancy. But beyond that, I think people are scared because they don't trust the speed and manner in which these vaccines were developed," Nanjiani said, referring to the COVID-19 vaccines.

"We basically lucked out and got miracle vaccines -- super high efficacy coupled with very minor and rare side effects. These are fantastic vaccines, and they will help us get out of this pandemic -- but only if people will take them, of course," he added.

John Brownstein, an ABC News contributor, cautioned that the timing of such a day would be crucial as "the current challenge right now is supply" for the COVID vaccines. Therefore, he said, organizers would have to be certain there were more than enough vaccines to be administered as part of a vaccination drive.

But overall, he said, "anything we can do to bring visibility on how vaccines work broadly -- and this one specifically -- is a good thing." He argued that while a lot of resources are put into research and development, similar attention is not always paid to messaging.

"It is the responsibility of Surgeons General to protect, promote, and advance the health of our nation," the former surgeons general wrote in their letter, "and encouraging widespread vaccination is essential to that mission."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

hocus-focus/iStockBy MATTHEW VANN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- As the effort to vaccinate Americans intensifies, daily COVID-19 test numbers are falling nationwide, an alarming sign to public health experts who say the tests are still crucial to containing the virus.

Testing has been a fraught and highly politicized issue from the beginning of the pandemic, with the first tests rolling out slowly, testing taking a while to ramp up and former President Donald Trump wrongly claiming that an increase in testing was behind the world-leading level of coronavirus cases in the U.S. There have also been issues with testing access and the reliability of certain types of tests.

The daily average for COVID tests is now just over one million a day as of mid-February -- roughly a million less from where the country was a month ago, according to the COVID Tracking Project at Johns Hopkins University. The decline has been one of the steepest of the pandemic. Testing numbers in recent days, however, have slowly begun climbing upward, but aren’t near the level they were at their height during the 2020 holiday travel season.

So far this year, U.S. testing hit its peak on Jan. 15 with 2.2 million tests as the virus raged at unprecedented levels. But from then on, daily testing declined despite the emergence of new variants and cases recently appearing to plateau at high levels, as top health officials have pointed out.

“It’s incredibly counterintuitive for testing to be dropping in general, especially when we know that we’re not past the point of feeling like the worst is behind us,” said Jessica Malaty, the science communications lead at the COVID Tracking Project. “It’s also frustrating that tests are being unused.”

Some medical experts believe that the intense focus on vaccinations as opposed to testing amid the continued spread of new variants may also be playing a role in driving test numbers down.

“The same people who are doing the testing are often the same ones doing the vaccinations,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “And the attention to some of the issues around supply may affect the focus turning to vaccines rather than tests.”

The overall decline in testing tracks with reductions in other important coronavirus metrics, including new infections, hospitalizations and deaths. But data watchdogs insist that it would be wrong to conclude that the drop in new cases is connected to the decline in tests, given the increased risk of infection from the continued spread of new coronavirus variants.

“I also want to make sure that we’re not falling into the fallacy of if we test less, we see less cases,” said Malaty. “That’s not one of the reasons that we can use in explaining our case reduction. It’s a dangerous correlation to make.”

According to the Rockefeller Foundation, the United States needs 193 million tests monthly for schools and nursing homes "to open safely and in stages" -- a threshold the nation has never reached. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that more than 333 million COVID-19 tests have been conducted for the entirety of the pandemic in the U.S.

The Biden administration has laid out a $50 billion plan that would boost the nation's testing capacity through the increase of rapid antigen tests, testing centers, expand lab test processing, provide uniform guidance for in-school COVID testing and establish a national pandemic testing board.

The administration also announced a $230 million deal with Ellume, an Australian digital diagnostics company, to provide 8.5 million over-the-counter at-home tests. Ellume plans to produce 100,000 testing kits per month through July and ramp up to 19 million a month by the end of the year.

But those plans to increase test supply risk falling flat, especially if U.S. coronavirus testing numbers continue to fall amid a growing inventory of unused tests.

Millions of rapid coronavirus tests have sat unused after the Trump administration pushed them out quickly to states, but didn’t track whether and how they were used. According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, out of 142 million Abbott BinaxNOW tests shipped to states, at least 32 million were left untouched.

According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, out of 142 million Abbott BinaxNOW tests shipped to states, at least 32 million were left untouched as of early February.

A Biden administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told ABC News the federal government still doesn’t have a complete picture yet of precisely how many tests are sitting on shelves.

The official said the goal now is to figure out if there are tests some states don’t want and either provide them guidance on how to use them or ship them elsewhere. The administration wants to track other rapid tests given to the states too, and possibly rely on coordinating testing hubs to make them easier to use.

“We are fully cognizant and aware that this is a massive logistical challenge,” the official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.

The BinaxNOW tests often require support making it more challenging than just pushing out to the general public.

For instance, Abbott’s BinaxNOW tests requires the assistance of a trained tele-health professional to guide users through the process. Additionally, Wi-Fi access and digital equipment with a video calling feature are required -- resources that are not readily available to every American.

Public health experts point to such issues, and others including affordability and access, as reasons why daily U.S. coronavirus test numbers still aren’t at the level they should be at. A growing number of employers continue to offer their employees free, regular testing, but outside of that many must take care of the expenses on their own.

Nationwide, health insurance companies have differing policies as to how much of a COVID-19 test's costs that they can cover for their subscribers. It’s a concern that has made low-cost, over-the-counter access for COVID tests of special importance.

“We need to have these tests be single digits in the $5-dollar range for them to be affordable for many, if not most Americans,” said Mara Aspinall, an advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation and professor of practice in the biomedical diagnostics program at Arizona State University. “You can get a pregnancy test at Dollar Tree for a dollar. We’re not going to get there, but we need to be close.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


(PHILADELPHIA) -- Once again, it is Dr. Ala Stanford to the rescue, this time confronting Philadelphia’s vaccine inequities head on.

Last April, Stanford became frustrated with the city’s slow pace of COVID-19 testing, especially in Black and brown communities, and in a span of 48 hours put her private practice on hold, gathered some medical friends, rented a van and hit the streets to bring COVID-19 testing to neighborhoods badly in need.

The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium was born.

Now, Stanford and her team have set their sights on vaccinations, giving hundreds of shots of hope per day to the city’s most vulnerable, where going without one could have dire consequences.

Citywide -- and nationwide -- there are questions about why white and affluent people are getting the vaccine at higher rates.

In the city of Philadelphia, Black people make up the majority of the population and the majority of COVID-19 deaths, but more than half of the people vaccinated in Philadelphia thus far are white, according to data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Philadelphia is 42% Black, according to U.S. Census data, but the city reports that, to date, just roughly 21.5% of the shots in the city have gone to Black people.

“Everyone was talking about this phenomenon of sort of just, frankly, rich folks coming to poor neighborhoods to take the vaccine. But no one was doing anything,” Stanford told ABC News.

Among the people Stanford's team has vaccinated, approximately 79% of vaccinations have gone to racial minorities, including Black, Asian and Hispanic people.

Stanford has been helping communities devastated by COVID-19 in North Philadelphia for almost a year, volunteering her time and not earning a penny for her testing or her vaccine clinics.

“I am striving towards equity, because 20 years ago when I was in medical school, these same inequities existed. ... And every day that we get out there, we are changing it. And that's a story I want to be a part of, regardless of if I'm getting paid or not,” she said.

Philadelphia is the birthplace of America, but it is also one of the poorest big cities in America, according to Census data. Like the rest of the country, it is plagued by racial and economic disparities.

“We have the need to bring this forward with racial equity because as we know, people of color have suffered the most from this and have had the most worst cases and the worst outcomes," Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told ABC News.

Kenney said he has recognized the need and is getting the city back on track after what he acknowledges have been some "bumps in the roads" in the vaccine rollout.

The city initially opted to allocate the vaccine doses to an organization called Philly Fighting COVID. The nonprofit was able to vaccinate roughly 7,000 people, but the 22-year-old in charge was accused of giving shots to his friends instead of the most vulnerable. The organization said the doses were set to expire.

Andrei Doroshin, who said he took home four expiring doses of the hard-to-get vaccine and administered it to friends, has insisted he did nothing wrong.

"The recommendation from the health department was put it in any arm. This is a war against a virus. At the end of the day the doses were about to expire," Doroshin told ABC Philadelphia station WPVI-TV. "What would you have done? You have these four extra doses, you called everybody, they're just about to expire, the guidance says put it in an arm."

Kenney called the initial rollout with the organization a "mistake."

"We're moving forward in a better way," the mayor said.

Stanford was initially told by the city her organization would have to wait until February to get the vaccine, but she was able to secure vaccine doses more than two weeks ahead of schedule.

The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium recently hosted a 24-hour clinic at Temple University and were able to vaccinate roughly 4,000 people, outpacing the city's first dose average of 3,500 people per day in February.

“It's that the lives of the people in this community really matter to us. It's because we know what it feels like to have a field that's not level to be treated unfairly for something you have no control over, oftentimes your socioeconomic status in the color of your skin,” she said.

With teamwork, the city is closing its vaccine inequity gap, and Stanford is getting access to more and more vaccines.

“I speak with Dr. Stanford almost every day. She's fabulous. She's high energy. She's extremely intelligent and thoughtful. She's committed to not only the Black and brown community. She's committed to the entire Philadelphia community,” Mayor Kenney said.

Stanford's steadfast commitment is measured in the number of rolled up sleeves, signaling trust in a community that’s often said to distrust the vaccine.

“It's really unclear to me whether or everyone just assumed because of the untrustworthy medical system, that people would not want to get it. That may have been part of it,” Dr. Stanford said.

Stanford recently earned front page accolades in Philadelphia for her work to get vaccinations to the communities badly in need.

“We are so filled up and refueled every single day with the gratefulness that we get from the community," she said. "You can't even put a price on that or value. It's good. And everything we've done from the beginning has come back to us in excess."

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(NEW YORK) -- After months of appointments, testing, fittings and surgery, one baby’s first time hearing music was caught on camera in a touching moment.

Manning James Roldan of Clifton Forge, Virginia, was born deaf in both ears. On Dec. 30, 2020, the 11-month-old received Cochlear implants.

Mother Noelle Brantley recorded the moment where Manning heard music, a cartoon theme song, for the first time. Immediately, Manning began dancing and laughing.

“To most people, this is just something every baby does, but to me, this is incredible. Manning has never danced to music because he’s never heard it,” Brantley shared in a Facebook post on Feb. 10.

Brantley told ABC News' World News Tonight Monday that the moment was one that she will never forget.

“To see him light up from sound when we’ve never seen that before is truly amazing,” she said.

Manning’s family said they are grateful for his medical team and the power of music.

“For him to hear with that device for the first time,” Brantley said, “was just so emotional and so incredible.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.